Ben Buchan proves that when it comes to protecting our ocean’s fisheries and reefs, a little education can go a long way.
The 23-year-old scuba instructor, marine biologist, and recent recipient of the 2015 Rolex Our World-Underwater Scholarship has already accomplished so much in the world of aquatic conservation; no doubt a result of his fascination with the ocean from a very early age.
“I grew up at a place called the central coast, which is just a little north of Sydney, Australia,” Buchan says. “I learned to dive when I was about 12 years old, and ever since then I’ve been hooked. I had a really cool mentor I grew up with on the coast [who] showed me a lot, and by the time I finished high school, I jumped straight into university to study marine biology.”
As a part of his degree coursework, Ben traveled to Cambodia for eight months to work on a coral reef regeneration program for a small fishing village there. That village is where, Ben says, his interest in aquatic conservation first took hold.
It wouldn’t be his last trip to Cambodia, either. Ben’s work post-university with Manly Sea Life Sanctuary took him to the island of Koh Rong, an atoll reliant on harvesting fish to maintain the indigenous population of coastal-dwelling villagers.
“I was part of an initial team that went over to an island called Koh Rong in Cambodia; there’s a small fishing village there and we went there to try and set up a non-profit organization,” Ben says. “It’s a small fishing village and they had almost completely devastated their reef from the use of dynamite fishing and pretty terrible, destructive nets, and so when we went there the reef was almost completely destroyed, so we removed the nets and stopped the villagers from dynamite fishing. We started up education programs to show them more sustainable ways of fishing, and then we also started to develop reef pods, so there’s an artificial reef there as well.”
While the mission of Manly Sea Life Sanctuary included working with villages to provide English lessons for local children, constructing water reservoirs, and setting up playgrounds and schools to improve conditions on land, the group’s main offshore objective was to abolish the local practice of fishing with dynamite to collect fish for consumption – by far the most devastating exercise being carried out in the waters off the coast of Koh Rong. Dynamite fishing (also known as blast fishing) works by creating an underwater explosion that can either stun or kill entire schools of fish with a single detonation.
Fishing with dynamite isn’t unique to the waters of Southeast Asia alone, and is actually quite common in many parts of the unindustrialized world. “It’s common in a lot of developing communities where they can’t catch fish often, so they start to resort to methods like [dynamite fishing] where they’ll literally throw sticks of dynamite in the water, blow up a reef, then go around and collect the dead floating fish,” Ben says. “It happens not just through Southeast Asia, but also in a lot of developing communities that rely on fishing as their primary source of income.”
Fishing with dynamite is an easy way to kill entire schools of fish in a flash while destroying reefs in the process, making it one of the most devastating tactics used to harvest our ocean’s limited natural resources. It is encouraging to know, however, that with a little education the practice can be eradicated and replaced with more sustainable ways for villagers to bring in their required harvests – without destroying the environment in the process.
“When we first went to Cambodia, I didn’t think that reef was going to recover at all,” Ben recalled. “There were almost no schooling fish there, there was very little live coral, and the reef overall was almost completely dead. It’s taken a couple of years now, but the reef has come back pretty well; we’ve got some live coral, we have new corals recruiting on the reef pods, we have schooling fish coming through, and the kids are going out on their little foam boats and catching fish [every] afternoon.”
Villagers resorting to dynamite fishing may seem indifferent to environmental causes, but Ben is clear to point out that’s simply not the case. “It’s not that these villagers are purposefully disrespectful of reefs; rather, many of them have tables to fill with little knowledge of a more efficient and environmentally friendly way to do so. You see a real difference when you try and set up a project and you start education, because the reason [the villagers] were dynamite fishing wasn’t because they didn’t respect the reef, it was just simply because they didn’t know the native effects that kind of thing would have.”
That’s one of the reasons Ben’s primary conservationist focus includes a heavy dose of local aquatic education.
“I’ve had the chance to work on a bunch of projects, but there’s probably a couple that stand out, mostly from an education perspective; I like to go and work in developing communities and set up and help marine education programs. There’s this really cool [education center] in Papua New Guinea called Mahonia Na Dari. They put kids in school from as young as five or six up to 17 and 18 years old because they live in this area of the world that’s in the center of the coral triangle, has abundant fish life, amazing coral, and [the students] have never put their face in the water, so they simply don’t know what they’ve got.”
Ben cites the Mahonia Na Dari project as one of his favorites. He says teaching kids how important their marine resources are is one of the most effective ways to protect our ocean’s reefs and fisheries from destructive fishing practices that can lead to devastated aquatic environments.
He also can’t reiterate enough how a little education goes a long way. For Ben Buchan, teaching the youth occupying Southeast Asia’s Coral Triangle environmentally friendly ways of reeling in all the fish they need while maintaining fish populations for future generations is a simple first step toward protecting our ocean’s resources.
One might say it’s as easy as fishing with dynamite.
To learn more about Ben Buchan’s aquatic adventures, check out his blog by clicking here.